One of the qualities that makes the Edward Hopper painting “Nighthawks” memorable (right) is the large amount of empty space. In a painting that covers 84 x 152 cm, there are only four people surrounded by dark, empty streets. Most modern Christians would characterize the worship services in their churches by the things that are present: bands, choirs, videos, preaching, etc. But when I compare them to many worship encounters I find in Scripture, our services could seem like the Hopper painting – characterized by what’s absent.
We evangelicals love celebrating God’s holiness, power, goodness and love. In Joshua chapters six and seven, Joshua and the people of Israel had just experienced God’s might and provision through a great victory won over the city of Jericho. God’s people were also celebrating His holiness, power, goodness, and love. Unfortunately, through the unconfessed sin of some of the people (one couple), the entire lot were disqualified from receiving God’s guidance and blessing. Because of that unconfessed sin, the people failed miserably at something they assumed God directed (the taking of the town of Ai) and many lives were lost. God remained silent until the sin was confessed and the evil addressed.
In the beginning verses of Isaiah chapter 6, Isaiah finds himself peering into worship in the throne room of heaven. As he observes angels worshiping God in grace and truth he is confronted by his own sinfulness. After he confesses his sin, God cleanses him by sending a seraphim flying with a burning coal to cauterize his sinful mouth. Only then was Isaiah able to listen and respond and God willing to speak.
Don’t we also want to hear from God in the midst of our worship? Isn’t this the reason that protestants in general and specifically evangelicals value the preached Word? In the Joshua telling of Achan’s sin and in the account of Isaiah’s call, we see a paradigm for worship: in many instances, in order to hear and understand God, we first must search our hearts, confess our sin and repent. Only then are we fit or able to understand God’s continuing revelation.
One way some churches address this need is by scripting a time of congregational confession. Because many churches who use this element of worship choose to utilize formal approaches, some see this time in the service as either stale or insincere. If that is your opinion, you should not give up so easily.
There are fresh and creative ways to help the Body of Christ confront themselves and their sin, embracing humility and submission to Holy God through a time of corporate confession and repentance. In his book, Rhythms of Grace, Worship Pastor Mike Cosper suggests using scriptures involving confession, such as Psalm 51. These passages can be read by a worship leader or the congregation. They can also be sung in paraphrased settings, like the song “Give Us Clean Hands.” In addition to reading or singing scriptures that call the church to confession, scripture-led confessions can also be transposed into corporate prayer. If you’ve ever tried praying scripture as a part of your personal quiet time, you have some idea of how effective this practice can be for a worshiping congregation. The Worship Sourcebook, produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship is an excellent place to find these types of resources. I have also found several ideas on the web. One of my favorite internet resources is reformedworship.org. There are many places to get ideas for ways to include corporate confession and repentance in evangelical worship services, you just have to look.
“Nighthawks” may be defined by what’s missing, but our services should not be. When it comes to helping the Body of Christ encounter God’s revelation, we must provide our congregations with the best opportunities possible.